Why MTV's The Challenge Is the Best Serialized Show on TV

I know you guys love your Game of Thrones, your Breaking Bad, your Vampire Diaries, what have you. Those shows all know how to keep a plot moving, despite having several different parts, tons of characters, and complex, long-term relationships. Like all great serialized television series, they know how to tell stories over a long period of time, and they know how to let the past impact the present. They're also all pretty awesome. 

But here's the thing: MTV's The Challenge (formerly The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, not to mention all sorts of themed subtitles) is more skilled than those scripted shows at telling serialized stories. I'm being a little facetious, of course, and The Challenge isn't necessarily a better overall show, but amid the drunken debauchery, crying, yelling, and cryelling, MTV's tentpole reality series (sorry, preggo teens) has one of the weirdest, longest, and most fascinating histories on television.  

The benefits of history and reality TV "arcs"

The Challenge began in 1998, and tonight's premiere of The Challenge: Rivals II brings us the 24th (!) season of the show. Let those data points sink in for a moment. As an off-shoot of two of MTV's big 1990s properties, The Real World and Road Rules, the show has endured multiple mini-revolutions in reality TV and cable programming practices by morphing from a silly excuse to bring the network's stars together to a full-blown athletic strategy competition. It deserves more credit than it gets for preceding some of the more popular or infamous reality shows of today. Yet, despite regular reinventions, The Challenge has continued to rely on a certain trove of characters and their never-ending beefs and dramas. 

And while the show is still mostly about people whining and punching one another, it's also become a space for interesting stories—like, real stories about people's lives—to play out over an extended period of time in a way that's pretty uncommon for reality television as we know it. It's a show where the post-Real World/Road Rules universe bleeds into the televised narrative. Drama that boils up between seasons, maybe at a "speaking engagement" (a.k.a. a bar crawl or a sponsored party at Bro U), might later result in legitimate tension on-screen. The Challenge is a show where characters like Derrick and Brad can talk about returning to the game over and over or One. Last. Time. so they can win the money for their families. It's a show where couples like CT and Diem can come together in a showmance that turns real, break up over legitimately serious issues (she had cancer, he lost family members, they're both messed up), and then appear years later with all kinds of history and tension that scripted TV can't quite match. And it's a show where the Survivorfication of reality TV has paid off: Alliances are formed even before MTV flips on an HD handicam because everybody already knows—and mostly despises—everybody else.

It's kind of nuts to say this, because it's not like these are the most admirable of people, even in the warped world of reality TV, but The Challenge really makes you care about its "characters," whether you love 'em or hate 'em. Although that's mostly because you keep seeing the same people again and again and the show eventually finds a story, sometimes even a long-term arc, for all of them. For example, I can say with complete honesty that there are few individual characters I'm more interested and invested in than CT; he's been part of my (TV-watching) life for a decade.

A reality TV innovator

I would say that with most reality shows, even long-running ones, you don't necessarily need to know anything about them before jumping right in. Never seen The Amazing Race before? There are teams, and they race. Unfamiliar with America's Next Top Model? Tyra Banks is loco and the premise is in the title, but it's a lie because the winners is more likely to end up on The Soup than the cover of Vogue. Certain reality shows like The Real Housewives franchise do require more knowledge of prior episodes and seasons, but those shows do enough other stuff to keep you locked in, and really, they're just soaps (which is okay!).

What's so fascinating about The Challenge is that its internal history goes back so far; it's one of the only reality shows on television that truly maintains a balance between the competition format and the soapy drama. All serialized TV borrows heavily from the soap genre, and all reality TV producers know how to craft "arcs" and "characters" out of the raw footage. But no other reality show hopes that you'll remember something that happened during a Gulag competition it held in 2010 (just Google it) or a slap fight that occurred in 2007. Most reality competition shows don't ask you to invest in individuals or couples over a multi-year period, and most reality soaps aren't constructing conflict out of truly grueling physical challenges.

The Survivor Effect

To be fair, there's no question that The Challenge took a turn for the better once Survivor started making big waves after it premiered in 2000. The producers of The Challenge recognized the value of having cast members vote their peers out, especially since they were working with cast members who already knew each another. 2002's Battle of the Seasons introduced the voting element and a few years later, the difficulty level of the physical challenges was ramped up to Survivor-esque levels. Without SurvivorThe Challenge wouldn't be what it is today.

Still though, The Challenge has also had a big impact on Survivor, and other similar reality shows. In recent years, SurvivorThe Amazing Race, and Big Brother have repeatedly brought back former cast members to play with the newbies as a way to use the past to make the present more intriguing (and to appeal to viewers' sense of nostalgia). And a show like Bachelor Pad is basically just a straight-up rip-off of The Challenge. But none of those shows can really match The Challenge's sense of history and its desire to keep filming the same people, season after season, hoping to deepen that history and give the audience an ongoing look at the characters and their relationships. Yes, of course, The Challenge is absolutely one of the worst kinds of reality TV, but we can't deny that it's also one of the most complex. When CT punches Wes, it's more than just the alcohol talking.

The Challenge: Rivals II premieres tonight at 10pm on MTV.

Comments (44)
Submit
Sort: Latest | Popular
Trashelle's ugly racism, ugly bigotry, ugly elderly-looking dog face would have completely turned me off the show and I was about to refuse to watch the rest of Rivals II, but luckily she took her little ball and went home. The producers need to be ban that redneck spaz from the program. Her random and pointless bigotry and hideous appearance and personality turned off a lot of people. Her trashy redneck face even ended up costing her partner, Sara, a chance at winning. The show should not have let Trashelle's messiness cost anyone else but herself. She screwed up and didn't want to take the wrap for it or apologize for trash. DO NOT BRING HER BACK ON THE SHOW OR I WON'T WATCH EVER AGAIN. And Aneesa, I have no idea why you said Trishelle "wasn't racist, just stupid." Trashelle is clearly a racist bigot who needs her dog face smashed in along with a banned from off the program. The idiotic hideous dogface wretch couldn't even make a point in what she was saying. The whole house knew she was an idiot. She made of fool of herself. Good riddance. Dumb wretch. Stay the hell off the show and don't come back. Nobody like you Trashelle or wants to see your dogged face!
More+
1
Reply
Flag
this article is awesome and spot on. I'm glad I'm not the only one still watching these things around this site. It's always so refreshing and although it uses a lot of the same people, thats what makes it great, with people having to vote their real life friends into eliminations due to the need to win, but alliances can sometimes get repetitive and drag the game down. loving the current Rivals 2 season...i hope the 25th season is either Cutthroat 2, The Ruins 2 or maybe Fresh Meat 3
2
Reply
Flag
Also like me on facebook i've got the inside scoop https://www.facebook.com/pages/Preston-Charles/146119992240831?ref=hl
Reply
Flag
I must say I'm glad that others have their drama in the house it keeps it entertaining and the camera's out of my face
Reply
Flag
CT is crude, rude and unpredictable, but I always seem to root for him to win, maybe he will this year. Well if he could just make it to the end without getting kicked out for punching someone, I will be happy.
4
Reply
Flag
I will give a try, my co worker explain this to me today!! MTV is showing a repeat of seaon premiere tonight I will DVR it and watch later as I have Big Brother, Burn Notice and Motive on tonite
Reply
Flag
Basically, if you do not find the Challenges entertaining, it means you just haven't watch it before. It is, by far, the most insane reality-based competitions out there - it's mostly like "Survivor", but it can turn into " Fear Factor" in a second, and when the comp are over for the day, it turns into über-"Big Brother", with LOTS OF BOOZE, LOTS OF SEX, and LOTS OF NAME-CALLING AND FIGHTING.

It's amazing.

And yeah, CT is, without a doubt, the most interesting reality personality there is. You really, REALLY have no idea what the hell is going on in his head at any moment, and, since he's an actual berserker... that could be lethal.

Love it. Glad it's back. Can't wait to see what the hell will happen.
5
Reply
Flag
It's certainly entertaining.
Reply
Flag
Nice read! Thanks for posting this. I'm a major fan of The Real World, the canceled Road Rules and of course the Challenge and its many incarnations. As long as they keep making them, i will watch them. Love seeing new people from RW mixed w/veterans from both shows. I've watched probably every season with the exception of maybe 1 or 2 early ones.
4
Reply
Flag
Finally, someone else who appreciates my guilty love for this show! I watched Battle of the Sexes (the first one from 2003) when I was 14, and I have been hooked ever since. This is the drunk man's Survivor, and it is by far the best thing MTV has on air (I refuse to watch the many shows glorifying teen pregnancy).
4
Reply
Flag
Wow, I knew Price loved it but he can be a little crazy and I wasn't sure if he just liked it ironically. But if Cory likes it too then I may just have to check it out. Of course I'm an austere completist so I'd have to watch it from the very beginning. I'll consider it the next time I have nothing to do for several months.
Reply
Flag
I've watched this show since the beginning and I will continue to watch until they stop airing it - as long as they keep brining back cast members that I've become invested in over the years I'll keep on a-watchin' no matter how silly, trivial or mundane the show is/becomes.
6
Reply
Flag
I can't wait for tonight. I have been watching since the RR/RW challenge too!
Reply
Flag
YES! I thought I was the only one who watched this! I've been watching since the first RR/RW Challenge and have been obsessed ever since. So I wanted CT to win this season but then I saw that he's paired up with Wes.... ugh. Oh well! CT IS A BEAST!
3
Reply
Flag
I watch these The Challenge shows...let's see...The RW/RR Challenges: Fresh Meat 1 and 2,Inferno 1-3 I think or was just 1 and 2?,Island,Battle of Seasons,Battle of Sexes,Rivals,Battle of Exes,Gauntlet,etc.
I enjoy very much challenges...of course there is drama and sometimes good drama,other times roll my eyes drama.
Reply
Flag
also justified and bates motel are 2 of the best serialized shows on television. much like boardwalk empire but I don't think anyone would get that from reading YOUR reviews of the show. the fact that you watch *shit* like this by explain why.
1
Reply
Flag
Staff
I pretty much praised Boardwalk Empire from beginning to end last season, so now you're just wrong. Sorry you don't like reality TV. Enjoy being an exceptional human being!
10
Reply
Flag
bullshit. you were complaining about nucky's arc throughout the entire middle. and I remember absolutely no praise save for maybe the big final episodes. reading your reviews read like someone just doing it because it was their job. you nitpicked incessantly.
1
Reply
Flag
Staff
Praising something doesn't mean it's not without its problems. I wanted to review the show. Sorry you didn't like the reviews, and that you're angry.
4
Reply
Flag
Thank you, Cory. Why don't people understand that pointing out flaws does not equal "I HATE THIS AAARRGHRAWR"?
Flag
I watch Bates Motel + Boardwalk, and GoT and Rectify and Homeland and a slew of other acclaimed dramas but I love The Challenge, too. I don't mind reality competitions. I just don't like the Housewives/Kardashian/Teen Mom variety. Also, maybe you should take a chill pill?
2
Reply
Flag
I think reality challenges would be great if you could trust that they were in the true spirit of competition and not ratings. when you wait through the credits and it says "the contestants and judges took input from the production crew" wtf? tthis particular show spends equal amounts of time creating and focusing on drama as it ever did competition. much like the others all do as well. just terrible.

and i probably should take a chill pill but i don't believe in pharmaceuticals.
1
Reply
Flag
"pharmaceuticals really do exist, i've seen them in chemists [pharmacies] and everything"
1
Reply
Flag
stick with booze;-)
1
Reply
Flag
you're talking about a reality show here dude? why the fuck did I click this? oh yeah, because they changed the name of real world road rules challenge again? that did it, it's super fresh now. that'll bring me back after a decade of absence from it's audience. do they still do spring break specials too? I know they don't do rockin' jocks anymore... if you watcjh this shit you're 'a part of the problem.' this universe of series' are almost single-handedly responsible for the absolute garbage that litters the television landscape today.

you're a burden on and a hindrance to evolution within our gene-pool. much like vicky below me who watches the jeselnik offensive, another show whose audience is having the same impact.
2
Reply
Flag
Actually it's been called "The Challenge" since 2010.
1
Reply
Flag
Wow. What is with the complete assault here? Cory obviously understands that, at its best, reality tv is still not GOOD; the point, though, is that this show does, in fact, have a rich history that makes it DIFFERENT from other reality series.
2
Reply
Flag
Staff
Thank you! I've been so flattered.
6
Reply
Flag
If someone has never seen The Real World (TRW) or Road Rules (RR) or The Challenge (under whatever name or subtitle) then where would you suggest one should start? Would it be The Challenge season 1 episode 1 or does one need to watch TRW or RR or is there another better starting point?
2
Reply
Flag
To be honest,you can start with Rivals II,because I am sure,they will show in first episode clips of why people are rivals. I never watched any RW or RR,just got into RW/RR Challenges. I watched episodes on internet,downloaded some,maybe even Youtube has some. I watched some on MTV,but think nowdays you can't,if you ain't from US.
1
Reply
Flag
So, season five (Battle of the Seasons) was the first great season. The oldest veteran this season is CT who first appeared in season 8 (The Inferno). Both great jumping off points but honestly, it'd be insane to watch all of that. The editors are pretty good with showing flashbacks to prior seasons, so it's up to you.
2
Reply
Flag
Thanks and think you're right about the insanity of try to watch it all. I'll see if I can find Battle of the Sexes or Battle of the Seasons and give it a try...
1
Reply
Flag
Staff
That's a tough question. You could *probably* just start with The Challenges. Too hard to go back to specific RW or RR seasons, especially since some of these people are so far removed from those original shows.
1
Reply
Flag
thanks! your article makes the show sound interesting and I've recently come to like "reality" competition shows (not the singing ones but the athletic ones like ANW, Survivor, Heroes)
Reply
Flag
mmmm... Im not to sure where you would be able to find the first RR/RW Challenge, but you could probably just start with Battle of Sexes
1
Reply
Flag
thanks! I'll see what I can find online
Reply
Flag
I haven't watching since like Fresh Meat. I know Evan was in The Challenge: Rivals, but does anyone know if he's going to be in this one? I loved him in Fresh Meat and I just saw on wiki he's won a couple since then!
Reply
Flag
NVM just looked on mtv.com and he isn't. probably will still watch.
Reply
Flag
Omg, it's like you took my brain and made sentences from my thoughts. I love the Challenge. I've been a devotee since its inception and...it just makes me happy. I've always said the fact that you already know these people helps to make it "more". My only complaint is when the contestants grow up and become adults and stop appearing (I miss you Coral + Miz!!!).
4
Reply
Flag

Like TV.com on Facebook

  • 8:00 pm
    The Bachelorette
    NEW
    ABC
  • 10:00 pm
    Mistresses Blurred Lines
    NEW
    ABC